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What’s This Fantasy Doing in My Science Fiction epic?

There is a hard and fast rule that science fiction has science and that fantasy has magic, and thus the two genres will never be one.

That is the line that divides the genres, but as Noah Berlatsky explains the line is a lot fuzzier and crooked than it first appears.

“The Last Jedi” is set in large part in a green, mountainous landscape inhabited by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) — an old, grizzled dude with flowing robes and mysterious powers. The plot involves talk of royal bloodlines, astral projection, swords that choose their wielders, and an epic battle between light and a twisted, all-seeing Sauron-like darkness. The film also includes cute Disney-like snow cats and owl-critters, and it opens with the words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," which sure sounds like a variation on the classic "Once upon a time."

"The Last Jedi" is built around magic and mysticism and backwards-looking nostalgia for a time of knights and royal houses. Those are tropes of fantasy, not of future-obsessed science fiction.

Or is it? To figure out whether Star Wars is science fiction, you first need to figure out how to define the term — which is harder than you might think. Genres are notoriously difficult to pin down, which is why they spark so many arguments. Some country fans protested loudly when Beyoncé appeared at the Country Music Awards because she (supposedly) was not a country artist. Some critics similarly argued that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are not literature, though the Nobel committee disagreed.

At first glance this seems ridiculous, but Noah is not wrong. Science fiction stories frequently include elements that are so fantastical that they cannot be explained via science or technology, and thus are more appropriately classified as magical realism, a fantasy subgenre that "expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements", and sometimes SF stories use so much handwavium that the characters might as well be waving a magic wand.

For example, the TV series Fringe was ostensibly an SF series where a team of investigators encountered science or tech run amok, but many of the incidents involved ideas that were simply scientifically impossible.

And then there’s Doctor Who, a series about an alien with a time machine that could just as easily be described as a magic blue box and a sonic screwdriver that, thematically speaking, is literally a magic wand. (And let’s not get into the stories, which frequently descend into magical realism.)

To be clear, I am not excluding these stories from the SF genre so much as noting that in my opinion some subgenres of fantasy come with a healthy dollop of tech mixed in.

And sometimes that is on purpose.

John Ringo wrote a series 15 years ago which proved the axiom that any sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic. The Council Wars series explored the war that ensued after a high tech civilization collapsed on Earth. It had everything from spells to elves to dragons, but everything was explained through advanced tech like nanotechnology, force fields, and teleportation.

So tell me, if these stories are arguably fantasy, then what is science fiction?

I would love to hear your answer to the question, because I don’t have one.

The idea that fantasy can come with advanced tech is a revelation to this. I used to think I didn’t like fantasy, when it turns out I just like my fantasy with a lot of tech mixed in.

What do you think?

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Don DeBon December 19, 2017 um 2:03 am

It depends on your definition. One that I generally tend to go by: If the story doesn’t work when you remove the technology, it is science fiction. Analog magazine has this as their definition.

And of course on the flip side: Any advanced technological system will appear as magic to the more primitive. With that in mind, is Harry Potter really science fiction because they are using a 'different' science far more advanced (or different) than our own? I would say not, but again it depends on your definition.

It is one of the things that is difficult to define with certainty in all situations. In essence, "you know it when you see it." Although, some stories really blur the line as you mentioned. Star Wars has often been called Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction to try and define those that do blur that line with more ease. Yet, the debate rages on.

DaveMich December 19, 2017 um 12:31 pm

Leslie Smith December 19, 2017 um 1:41 pm

Two series that, for me at least, always stand out when people discuss stories that blur magic and science fiction are Julian May’s The Many Coloured Land (Also known as The Saga of the Pliocene Exiles. I always felt that it’s followup which is actually a prequel, The Galactic Mileu, while almost pure science fiction also wasn’t quite as interesting. You can safely skip it and not lose anything since they discuss much of what happens anyway in the first series.) and C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy. (A little weak in spots, but still very enjoyable overall. The writing in the first book especially hangs somewhat in places, but if you keep going it does get better.)

Marilynn Byerly December 19, 2017 um 3:32 pm

First, you should never define a genre by what media franchises do because they don’t have a clue and don’t give a sh*t. They just throw whatever their lazy and disinterested writers and producers can think of without caring if it makes sense according to science, magic, plot and worldbuilding integrity, or logic of any sense.

It’s hard enough for written genre where the authors and most of the readers do care.

The first thing to realize is that genre is a marketing term. You pick the marketing term that will put the most butts in seats or buyers of books. If you fail abysmally in that marketing term, for example, having the hero die at the end of the romance, then you have destroyed your market possibilities.

As to your original question, there’s a catch-all term for science fiction that’s got things that don’t seem science based. It’s called science fiction fantasy.

Bill Smith December 19, 2017 um 6:50 pm

Within the industry, often "speculative fiction" is used to cover the entire range: fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural horror, magical realism, even comic book-style stories … because honestly, there is a lot of crossover among the readership.

Even within sci-fi, there are lots of arguments about what is "real" sci-fi (generally those making that argument are advocates of hard "slide rules" style-sci-fi) and using their argument to exclude anything that doesn’t fit their definition.

In the old days, Asimov, Clark and Heinlein were clearly traditional sci-fi writers, Bradbury was grudgingly admitted by most but excluded by others (Bradbury himself claimed to be a fantasy writer who used sci-fi elements), and Harlan Ellison was a heretical troublemaker.

And then there are all the varieties within the sci-fi/fantasy milieu — military sci-fi, planetary romances, sword and planet, space opera, cyberpunk, steampunk, new wave (a sub-genre nearly 50 years old), etc.

Personally, I am open to many varieties of speculative fiction and don’t really get bent out of shape about it — I write space fantasy, after all — but there is a small but very vocal contingent within scifi that is quick to stake out their preferred flavor as "real sci-fi" in an attempt to exclude anything out of their club.

Bill Smith December 19, 2017 um 6:51 pm

Forgot to add, and don’t get the hard core folks started about SF vs sci-fi.

David B Huber December 19, 2017 um 8:16 pm

Wikipedia quotes Hugo Gernsback’s idea of a perfect science fiction story as "75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science." Hard SF such as Robert Forward’s "Dragon’s Egg" extrapolates current mainstream thought in a logical forecast as the Science element, while Sufficiently Advanced Technology can fill that role in soft SF like David Brin’s "The Practice Effect" or Andre Norton’s "Ice Crown".

Fantasy is required only to be internally consistent as in Madeleine L’Engle’s "A Wrinkle In Time".

Rhianna Hawk October 11, 2018 um 10:56 am

You make a lot of good points here about how genres, especially fantasy, tend to creep into other genres. I know that Doctor Who, while it focuses on time and space travel, definitely has a lot of fantasy and magical themes, and I’ve recently been looking at some books that have clear fantasy elements, but set in space. Personally, I think it enriches the story when genres blend like that, and it allows readers to see the same ideas from different perspectives and through different lenses than they otherwise could have, though the lines of what is science fiction and what is fantasy are definitely blurred right now.

Nate Hoffelder October 11, 2018 um 11:01 am

I just finished a series set in a future Pittsburgh that, due to a malfunctioning wormhole portal, was shifted into an alt-reality Earth with magic and peopled by Elves.

That was an interesting genre crossover.

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